Jaroslav Pelikan, “Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution”

In deciding to read this book I recalled the author’s excellent Acts commentary (discussed elsewhere on this site), and learned that an admired polymath law professor had read the author’s history of Christian thought (five volumes or so) and endorsed it.  There were some occasional insights in this book, and not a lot I actually disagreed with, but it was still disappointing in that it did not grapple with the kind of questions I — as a textualist for both the Bible and the Constitution, but in not exactly the same way and not for exactly the same reasons — was hoping it would.

Some notes:

  • There’s a blurb from Judge Noonan, a dedication to Edward Levi, and its publication by the Yale University Press (2004) — so we have big names left and right associated with it, and there is a long bibliography (curiously, though, nothing in it by Justice Scalia; Bork’s The Tempting of America is included).
  • A thought:  The Old Testament is to the New Testament as the Constitution is to the Bill of Rights.  A similar but better analogy (not my own):  The New Testament is to the Old Testament as the “pocket part” of a legal work is to the original.
  • I liked this offhand comment (20):  “… when schoolchildren were still required to memorize anything …” (!).

And there’s this excerpt:

Both the interpretation of the Constitution as American Scripture and the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture are certainly a great deal more than parsing the grammar and probing the vocabulary of an authoritative text — but they must never be less!  On this insistence, those who are often labeled “textualists” in their interpretive philosophy and those who could therefore not inappropriately be labeled “contextualists” would, or should, agree.  In one sense, therefore, the question of this book is very narrow:  What are the means and methods by which official interpreters read their normative texts?  But given the massive authority of those texts, as well as the magisterial standing of those authorities, this narrow question is also a decisive question, and one that can be extremely broad in its implications.